KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Rennia Davis walks into the media room in Thompson-Boling Arena wearing her orange practice jersey. At this point, seeing her wear anything but orange would be jarring.
Four years as a Lady Vol. In those four years in Knoxville, she's experienced more volatility (pardon the pun) than most Lady Vols have in their whole career. The highs have been tremendous - a place in the top ten or near the top ten in program history in almost ever scoring category, what feels like countless long-range threes at the buzzer to lift her team to victory (her two favorite, by the way, in the 2018 SEC Tournament against Auburn and in 2020 against Alabama in Thompson-Boling Arena). Now she's a projected top-five pick in the WNBA Draft.
"I just know that the things that I've learned and the person I've been able to grow into over these four years, I just know that that's gonna get me to where I want to be. My work ethic, my ability to adapt to pretty much any environment, and still flourish in those environments," Davis said.
But the lows have been difficult - living life on the bubble when the NCAA Tournament arrives, fellow classmates and fellow players transferring, and of course, the firing of former Lady Vol head coach Holly Warlick at the end of the 2018-19 season.
"With a program like this, just the history, obviously, you're not winning as much as you used to be. Sometimes it can seem like you're not successful, but I think you have to take the small victories, I've been really training myself to learn how to do those things, and it's just seeing the growth every day in practice that we have and the growth from game to game," Davis said.
And that's what gives her so much hope for the future of the Lady Vols and the future for this team in the postseason - she sees the growth.
"It's just a mindset right now, once we start getting more things done, we'll start getting a lot of different type of players in here, but right now, it's just about it. Mindset is just about having people on the court that want to win and I think that's been the biggest difference for me here recently."
Since joining the Lady Vols in 2017, Davis has seen many teammates leave the program. You can just look at her own class: Evina Westbrook transferred to UConn shortly after Warlick's firing and NCAA first round opponent Anastasia Hayes was dismissed after her freshman season for violating team rules. Davis said she has thought about transferring in the past, but ultimately felt a loyalty toward Tennessee as a program.
"The temptation was there, but I've had people in my ear who've been able to, help me weigh out my pros and cons and then too in the back of my head, I always knew this is where I want to be at."
Davis said this program is where she wanted to make her name, to be considered great among other greats.
"My biggest thing too I just couldn't see myself playing against Tennessee. I couldn't, I couldn't, I just couldn't see that."
Her senior season is going about as well as you can imagine, an All-American honorable mention, All-SEC, averaging 17.2 points and 8.8 rebounds, leading the Lady Vols to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a chance at a deep tournament run.
The state of the world has made it far from easy. You only have to look as far as the media room she sits in wearing her orange practice jersey, staring into the lens of a camera over Zoom. COVID-19 has left its mark on so much. The Lady Vols have paused twice due to positive tests in the program. Davis revealed, she was one of those positive tests. It's why she missed the Feb. 11 rematch against Kentucky in Lexington.
"I don't want to miss games, obviously. So when I'm out there, (I'm) just enjoying it a lot more than what I have been in the past. Everything happens for a reason, obviously, I didn't want to miss the game, like I said, but I think I came back much better," Davis said.
Since her return against Texas A&M on Feb. 14, Davis has been playing some of the best basketball of her career. She's failed to score more than 20 points just once and is averaging just over 23 points per game.
COVID-19 has been far from the only adversity Davis and her teammates have faced in the past calendar year. After the riots and storming of the United State Capitol in early January, nearly every player took a knee in protest during the national anthem before the Arkansas game in Thompson-Boling Arena. Davis and her teammates were met with criticism from some Lady Vol fans. After the game, head coach Kellie Harper said it was a spur of the moment decision by the team.
"They indicated to me it was pretty spontaneous. I think a lot of it was just the emotions of what's going on right now," Harper said.
"I think that's how they were feeling in that moment."
In late February, a collection of Tennessee lawmakers wrote a letter to public university Presidents and Chancellors, asking them to ensure taking a knee wouldn't happen again, saying, "we do not condone any form of protest that could be viewed as disrespectful to our nation or flag while they are representing our state universities."
More than two months since the initial kneeling, Davis emphasized disrespect was never the intention.
"Obviously, what happened in the Capitol, I don't think it's fair I don't think it would have been handled the same way if it was people who look like me who came in there and and that was just the message we were trying to get across," Davis said.
"I mean, people have their own views about it politically and personally, but never any disrespect was intended just want to get our message out."
As for what the team faces now in March, Davis is well aware of what is in front of them. Tennessee hasn't made it past the first weekend since 2016. This year, she hopes to change that.
"I kind of want to be the one who laid the foundation so that in two or three years when when these freshmen are juniors and seniors, they can say, 'Oh, I'm a good leader, because Re showed me how to do this or Re was an example of how to be this,' and then, they may be the group that wins the SEC Tournament or National Championship, but I laid the foundation, so that's just huge for me, I might not reap all the benefits, but just to see this program get back to where it should be, that's just what's going to be most satisfying for me."
Loyalty is the word she brings up the most. Loyalty to her coaches, her teammates and the orange on her jersey. Davis understands from this point on, any game could be the last time she wears that jersey, but she knows it's already left a mark on her being.
"People don't truly understand what it means to be a Lady Vol. So I'm just happy I'm a part of this group and I will be for life because VFL, that's our saying - once a Vol, always a Vol."